DOWNTOWN IN THE ARCTIC

What can other countries show us in ways to develop the north? Recently Russia for the first time lifted the curtain on Arctic Siberia for a team of Canadian experts. Here’s a firsthand report on that vast, vital new world, by Jack Austin, special assistant to the minister of northern affairs and national resources

September 18 1965

DOWNTOWN IN THE ARCTIC

What can other countries show us in ways to develop the north? Recently Russia for the first time lifted the curtain on Arctic Siberia for a team of Canadian experts. Here’s a firsthand report on that vast, vital new world, by Jack Austin, special assistant to the minister of northern affairs and national resources

September 18 1965

DOWNTOWN IN THE ARCTIC

What can other countries show us in ways to develop the north? Recently Russia for the first time lifted the curtain on Arctic Siberia for a team of Canadian experts. Here’s a firsthand report on that vast, vital new world, by Jack Austin, special assistant to the minister of northern affairs and national resources

I TOOK THE PICTURE that appears at the top of this page shortly after midnight on June 9-10, with ordinary Ektachrome daylight film and no special lens or flash. It was daylight. This is a picture of downtown Norilsk, a mining metropolis of one hundred thousand people in Arctic Siberia, and its latitude is sixty-nine degrees north — the same as Inuvik, our own showpiece at the mouth of the Mackenzie, where the tall buildings are two stories high. The Soviet building shown above has five stories, built on permafrost; another in Norilsk has nine.

This is only one symbol, but as good as any, of the contrast between the Soviet Arctic and the Canadian. They have eight hundred thousand people north of the sixtieth parallel; we have forty thousand. They have about four billion dollars invested in a huge industrial complex around the biggest hydro-electric plant in the world — four and a half million kilowatts at the new' city of Bratsk, which ten years ago was a tiny village dependent on a fishing-and-hunting economy

like any other Arctic village. Their primitive Arctic people, the two hundred and fifty thousand Yakut, have been integrated into the Soviet economy and culture, while our twelve thousand Eskimos and seven thousand northern Indians are still paralytically straddled between the twentieth century and the Stone Age.

Needless to say, these Soviet achievements are based on a number of natural advantages Canada hasn't got. Siberia has vast acreages of arable soil in latitudes where ours was scraped off by the glacier some thirty thousand years ago. Siberia has half a dozen Arctic river systems, each as big as our one Mackenzie, with navigation seasons somewhat longer than ours. Siberia has huge quantities of partly developed resources; Canada is still looking for resources we think are there.

Also, the Soviet Union has motives for northern development that we haven't got in anything like the same degree. The Soviet Union is so implacably determined to become self-sufficient in industrial raw materials that it’s willing to continued / pay very high costs to develop its own territory. (The building budget for Arctic Siberia is thirty percent of the total for the entire Soviet Union.) Many of the projects would not be economic, by the standard of world prices in a free market. But when all this has been said, it is still a fact that the Soviet Union has put a tremendous thrust into northern development, compared to which our considerable Canadian effort looks small.

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FOR RUSSIA, THE NORTH IS THE FUTURE

I was able to make these observations as one of the half-dozen Canadians who went with Arthur Laing, minister of northern affairs and national resources, on a seventeen-day tour of the Soviet Union last June, of which thirteen days were in Arctic Siberia. The invitation was a breakthrough in our relations with the USSR, a great new chance for comparative studies in Arctic development. One

lone Soviet professor of archaeology had examined the vestiges of the Dorset people at Hall’s Beach in our Northwest Territories,' and Canadian Ambassador Arnold C. Smith had paid a visit to the Siberian city of Yakutsk in 1963; with those two exceptions, neither country had ever invited visitors from the other to territories north of parallel sixty. We were the first to make a comprehensive tour — in all, fifteen thousand miles of travel in the Soviet Union.

We were the first Westerners ever to see Norilsk, a modern city based on a rich copper-nickel complex; the first to visit Khandyga on the Aldan River, or the great industrial complex around Bratsk; the first to see Djibariki-Chaya, a truly isolated community in eastern Yakutia where they dig high-grade coal out of the permafrost.

Purpose of the trip was to develop our contacts with the other* members of the “Arctic community” (we spent about a week in the Scandinavian Arctic, too, on our way to the USSR) and see what the other countries are doing in the Arctic environment, and what if anything we could adapt to Canadian uses. In nearly a month of fatiguing travel, we saw and learned a great deal.

What struck us most, in the remote outposts of Soviet society,' was the energy, enthusiasm and single-minded devotion of the people we met. For centuries the very word Siberia stood for cold desolate exile, a place of banishment. This is valid no longer. In the last ten years the USSR has launched a tremendous program to make Siberia sound like a land of milk and honey, a land of the future, a land not only of national challenge but of personal oppor-' tunity. It is the Soviets’ frontier, and they tell their young people, “This is where you can make your great contribution and win your greatest reward.”

These words are backed with deeds. In Norilsk and Yakutsk a Soviet worker will be paid, at the beginning, one hundred and eighty percent of what he would earn in western Russia. By the

end of ten years it will have risen to three hundred and sixty percent

— almost quadruple pay. Norilsk was quite evidently the richest city we saw anywhere in the Soviet Union; as Arthur Laing put it, “This is a real money town, like Yellowknife or Trail."

But all this money couldn’t buy the kind of enthusiasm we found in Siberia. The people seem to think, talk, eat and sleep northern development, to the almost total exclusion of all else.

1 shall never forget meeting Aaron Gindinn. the builder of Bratsk

— sixty-two years old, two hundred and fifty pounds heavy, a huge polar-bearlike figure waiting for us at the airport of his brand-new city, in a towering hat that seemed to flop in all directions at once and a trench coat that trailed to his ankles. Gindinn is an engineer

— the engineer who built the whole vast industrial complex around Bratsk, the world's largest hydro-electric plant and the array of big industrial users that now surround it. A cellulose complex on a hundred and fifty acres will produce nearly half a million tons a year, an iion smelter ten million tons, both going into production in 1966. An aluminum smelter has one hundred and thirty-two furnaces. All ihese things sprang up within a fifty-mile radius of Bratsk, following the decision to develop this colossal hydro resource.

The decision itself was a major controversy in the days of Khrushchov. Critics in Moscow thought it was madness to put such a huge sum into hydro power, and the controversy wasn’t settled

until Khrushchov came to Bratsk to see for himself. (Arthur Laing had the honor — and our hosts made it clear that this was indeed an honor, even yet — of sleeping in Khrushchov’s bed.)

Mr. K. was persuaded by Gindinn’s torrential eloquence, and I don’t wonder. 1 have never met a man so full to overflowing with information — volumes, masses, flowing seas of fact about the Soviet Arctic in general and Bratsk in particular. It was obvious that he was enormously respected in the area. The people all touched their caps to him, in a way I would have thought had gone out with the czars, and he was totally fearless in dealing with the political people, cither local bureaucrats or those who had come with us from Moscow. Gindinn would have been a success, I’m certain, in any political or economic environment whatever. He and H. R. MacMillan, our British Columbian self-made tycoon, would have understood each other perfectly.

Another unforgettable experience was a dinner in Yakutsk, capital of the Yakut people’s autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. (It didn't strike us as very autonomous, but it certainly was socialist.) The Yakut arc a very intent people, very hospitable, and were anxious to show us what they had achieved. The dinner was given by

the director of the Yakut branch of the Academy of Science. We heard a lecture from the assistant director in charge of nationalities

— a woman of fifty-odd. a Yakut who'd been one of the first of this primitive folk to get a modern education, and who told us with incandescent enthusiasm what the Soviet Union had done to bring her people into the twentieth century.

Highlight of the evening, though, was an exchange of toasts in the Yakut national drink, mares' milk fermented by a process handed down from their Mongol ancestors, the tipple of Genghis Khan. It was served in special three-legged cups, set on the table tripodfashion. I did no more than taste mine with the tip of my tongue

— it was so fiery and horrid-tasting that I chickened out and asked

for vodka instead. John Turner. MP, the minister’s parliamentary secretary, was made of sterner stuff. He was the senior member of the party present (Arthur Laing wasn't able to be there) and as such had to make the formal response to the toast of friendship. He downed his three ounces of mares’ milk without a visible wince, though he immediately turned a rather sinister shade of greenishwhite. Graham Rowley, an old Canadian Arctic hand who prides himself on being able to drink the wine of the country, also downed his drink, asked for another and downed that. None of the rest of us could manage even one, but the

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visiting Russians were so impressed by Turner and Rowley that Canada's honor was safe.

Drinking fermented mares’ milk was not the only entertainment. The Yakut National Ballet put on an impressive program of folk dancing and singing. At another remote stop. Khandyga on the Aldan River, our fellow guests at a luncheon gave an impromptu concert of Russian songs, and invited us to respond with a Canadian repertoire. Ernest Côté, the deputy minister, led us in Alouette, O Canada and a few similar numbers, but our performance fell short of professional standards by a lot wider margin than theirs did.

These were the lighter moments in a fairly heavy tour. We saw what we had come to see — methods of construction in permafrost, methods of resource extraction, methods of looking after humans and maintaining morale in a latitude where it’s dark for two months every winter. (Eight miles outside of Norilsk they have a sanatorium of two hundred beds, which is the replica of a tropical climate — greenhouses with tropical plants, parrots and other exotic birds, eightydegree temperatures and daylight-type lighting. When a mineworker begins to feel bushed, he’s sent there for a week's rest and recuperation.)

What the future may hold for this vast empty land, we still can only guess. Soviet cost accounting is not made public, but we knew without being told that some of these projects would not be economic in our terms. The land is not as barren as our Arctic, but it isn’t exactly fertile at sixty to seventy degrees north, and the climate is as harsh as in our own Mackenzie Valley.

All we can say for sure is this: The Soviet Union has opted for northern development, and hasn't stopped at half measures in carrying out the decision. If the experiment fails it won’t be for lack of local enthusiasm. We thought, and still think, that there is a lesson there for Canada. ★